Larry Scully (1922-2002)

[photo of Larry Scully]

Laurence Vincent Scully (known as Larry Scully--see photo at right) was born of an Irish father and South African mother in Gibraltar on December 12, 1922.  His most famous painting is the Madonna and Child of Soweto, painted in 1973, which still hangs in the Regina Mundi Church in Soweto, and which is visited by people from all over the world.

Scully spent most of his youth in Portsmouth, England.  The family was very poor, and he left school and home at about thirteen years of age to go to work in a grocery shop in order to help to support his family.  When he was fifteen, the family moved to South Africa.  From 1939 through 1946, Scully served in the South African Permanent Forces working as a draftsman.  In that time, he also obtained his high school degree through correspondence courses.  This qualified him to obtain a grant to study at the University of the Witswatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, from 1947 through 1950.  There he was part of a cohort that included Cecil Skotnes, who remained a kind friend throughout Scully's life, Christo Coetzee and Esme Berman.  In 1963, he became  the first person in South Africa to be awarded a Master of Fine Arts degree (cum laude).  Scully's subject was the influences on Walter Battiss' work.

In the late 1940s, Scully taught at the Polly Street Art Center in Johannesburg, one of the first art schools on the continent designed to encourage African artists.  Polly Street asked him to become director, but Scully reluctantly declined because he needed to pay off his student loans.  He became certified as a teacher and from 1951 through 1965 taught Art at Pretoria Boys' High School, where he followed in the footsteps of his mentor, Walter Battiss.  In 1959, Scully married Christine Frost, pianist and teacher at Pretoria Girls' High.  They had twin girls in 1962 just before the family moved to Johannesburg.

The late 1950s and 1960s saw Scully defining his style.  An excellent still-life artist and landscape painter, Scully also searched for new forms, experimenting with shapes and textures inspired by African masks, but finally finding in abstract art a passion that remained with him always.  His artistic career really took off in 1962 with his one-man exhibition in Pretoria at the South African Association of Arts (SAAA) gallery.  He had many exhibitions over the next few years, and won the prestigious Oppenheimer Painting Prize in 1965.  In 1966, he represented South Africa at the Venice Biennale, and again at the Sao Paulo Biennale in Brazil in 1967 (with eight paintings).  In the course of the 1960s and 1970s, he held numerous one-man exhibitions at galleries such as The Goodman Gallery, the Botswana National Gallery, and at SAAA galleries throughout South Africa.

Scully, who was 6 ft. 8 inches tall, also painted on a large scale.   Among his most famous works are two murals, one in the Dudley Heights building in Johannesburg, entitled Cityscape, and the other for the Conservatorium of Music at the University of Stellenbosch.  He called the Dudley Heights murals, painted in 1971, "environmental murals" in part because they attempted to render the vista of a city connected to the golden mine dumps that circled it.  The University of Stellenbosch commissioned him to paint his "Music Murals" in 1978.  A series of large paintings and smaller works fill the entrance foyer.  Scully modeled the murals on the mandala concept of peace and balance.  He saw these murals also as an "African symphony" and homages "to Bach, Satie, and Debussy."

Scully held various leadership positions within the art world, both in education and in civic life.  He was head of Fine Arts at the Johannesburg College of Education from 1966 to 1973, when he decided to resign in order to paint fulltime.  In 1976, he became Professor of Fine Arts and Art History at the University of Stellenbosch, a position he held until 1984.  He was chair of the South African Association of Arts in Johannesburg, and National Vice-president from 1969-1974.  He also served as Chairman of the Venice Biennale selection board in 1970 and was a member of the Aesthetics Committee of the Johannesburg City Council from 1970-1974.  He was a Trustee of the South African National Gallery from 1978 through 1984.

In the 1970s, Scully headed a committee organizing a Johannesburg Biennale.  He planned to have all South Africans represented as artists and audience members.  A week or so before the biennale was due to open, the South African government ordered Scully to limit the biennale to whites only.  Scully refused to agree to this and shut down the biennale immediately.  This was an unusual and highly-principled action at a time when most whites supported apartheid, and did little to challenge racial discrimination.

Scully was Art Editor of The Sunday Express newspaper in Johannesburg from 1973 to 1975.  In that column he highlighted the work of his peers and also used the forum as a place to display his increasing interest in black Johannesburg and the creative tensions arising between the building of skyscrapers such as the Carlton Center, and the poverty and experiences of black South Africans working in the apartheid city.  The slides he took documenting the developing city, and many others taken both in South Africa and during Scully's frequent trips to Europe and the USA became the basis of his famous "multi-image" slide shows.  He would set up five projectors and manually projected slides at a dizzying pace to music.  Audiences often left the shows in tears of overwhelming emotion and delight.  Scully never repeated a show, an impossible feat since the eleven-thousand or so slides generally ended up in a jumble around him on the floor.  Scully held these shows at The Baxter Theatre in Cape Town, Stellenbosch Town Hall and various other venues.

In 1973, The Star newspaper, a liberal, anti-apartheid newspaper in Johannesburg commissioned Scully to paint a picture to raise money for an education fund for black South Africans.  Scully painted The Madonna and Child of Soweto, some 8 ft. by 5 ft. in size.  Harry Oppenheimer, an Anglo American bought the painting and donated it to the Regina Mundi Church in Soweto.  Regina Mundi was the site of much anti-apartheid activity both in the 1970s and through to the ending of apartheid in the 1990s.  Numerous funerals of activists were held in the church and many organizations used the church for meetings.  During the student uprising in 1976, students fled to Regina Mundi after police shot at them.  In 1997, Nelson Mandela declared Regina Mundi Day in recognition of the importance of the church to the anti-apartheid struggle.  As Michael Morris has noted, the painting "had a prophetic quality: the focal point is the child's right hand, forming a victory sign." [Morris Interview with Scully in Matieland, February 2002]

In 2004, journalist Mpho Lukoto reflected on ten years of democracy in South Africa by saying of the painting:

Perhaps one of the most poignant reminders of the past is the Black Madonna and Child of Soweto, which was painted by Laurence Scully.  Beneath the image of the Black Madonna, Scully painted an eye, with the different images in it giving meaning to the picture.  The pupil of the eye represents the township.  The two black forks that run across the eye toward the pupil represent the pain inflicted on black people.  And in the center of the eye, representing the church, is a cross with a light that illuminates the pupil.  It struck me that in the midst of all the painful memories, the painting is a symbol of the hope that, like the church itself, was in the heart of the people.  I like to believe that it was that hope that makes it possible for us to celebrate ten years of democracy.  The Star, March 23, 2004

Today thousands of visitors still see The Madonna and Child of Soweto on tours of the city; and the image of the black Madonna is printed on t-shirts that are sold across South Africa.  In the 1970s, Scully continued to document the changing landscape of Apartheid South Africa, taking numerous photographs of District Six as it was demolished to make way for white settlement in the center of Cape Town.  His photographs of District Six are housed in a permanent collection in the Stellenbosch University Art Museum and in the District Six Museum.

Scully's location in Stellenbosch seems to have drawn him away from the art world in Cape Town, and by the 1990s, Scully was increasingly being acclaimed as a son of Stellenbosch.  By his death in 2002 people were rediscovering his work as a lyrical testament to the human spirit--primarily rendered through his beautiful abstract paintings such as Nkosií Sikelele iAfrika, completed in 1997 as a celebration of the New South Africa, and through his photography.  Scully was a photographer of distinction, winning the South African Republic Art Festival photography prize in 1981.  In the 1980s, Scully experimented also with photo-drawings (where he drew with pen on photographs).  His most celebrated works are a series "Xhosa Initiates with Transistor Radio."  The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art owns one of these photo-drawings.  Scully also  documented  miners' decorations of their bunks in the mining compounds around Johannesburg.

Scully's works are held in various public collections including the Royal Palace of Lesotho, the South African National Gallery, Hester Rupert Museum, the Pretoria Art Museum, Jan Smuts International Airport, Pretoria Art Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Universities of the Witwatersrand, Cape Town, Stellenbosch and UWC.  His paintings and photography are also in private collections around the world including in Australia, Ireland and the United States.

Scully said of his love of painting: "Painting is for me visual music and visual thinking.  My inspiration comes from the colors, textures, forms and light of Africa, and is a continuing search for unity out of diversity."

A tall, kind man, who nevertheless often infuriated people he worked with in part because of his penchant for whipping out a paintbrush in the middle of a conversation, or demanding the right to change a painting that was now in the possession of a gallery or individual, Scully was a legendary educator.  He inspired devotion among many of his students long after his days as a teacher.  His direction of Macbeth and Julius Caesar while a young teacher at Pretoria Boys' High School is still remembered by many pupils and members of the audience.  Larry sometimes reflected that if he had been born a few decades later he might well have become a film director as well as a painter.

Scully had a wonderful capacity for striking up conversations with acquaintances he met through his love of art, tennis, music, and travel; and these chance meetings often developed into fast friendships, such as his longstanding friendship with the Iranian tennis player Monsour Bahrami.  Larry also corresponded with Christo, listened to music with Jacqueline Du Pre, [he wrote to her when in London and said he loved her music and would like to listen to her Elgar cello concerto with her--she invited him to her home to do so] and became fast friends with pioneering art critic, Tsion Avital.

While not an overt political activist, Larry Scully's desire to recognize the humanity in all people on all sides of the difficult divide that was Apartheid South Africa is probably his lasting legacy, symbolized indeed by his beloved Madonna and Child of Soweto and by his multi-media images of District Six.

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